Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen on Africa, Escher, death, and her strict no-heroes policy
Striking a deep chord with her captivating, hyperstylized imagery of Africa, Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen also snaps her signature pics for the likes of designer Christian Wijnants, Frame magazine, and V. "Living statues, labyrinths, and Escher" are the photographer's current inspiration, all of which makes for a style that's graphic, boldly colored, and a little bit surreal. With a brand new baby and an upcoming book, as well as an exhibition to launch in the major cities from this month, Sassen keeps her vibrant outlook poppin'. Kaira van Wijk
1. What are you working on right now?
A photo report for the artist Grcic who is known for his futuristic furniture. Quite the autonomous project which is always interesting. I also have my book coming out, as well as exhibitions in Amsterdam and Milan (possibly also London and Paris) that mainly feature my African work. The title is "Flamboya," which is a beautiful and very personal association to me. I lived in Africa as a kid and flamboya represents a tree growing in Kenya that produces these huge, orange flowers and smells incredible. Speaking of childhood, I just had my first baby.
2. What inspires you at the moment?
Living statues, labyrinths, Escher
3. How did you get into photography, was it always a dream of yours?
Not in that particular way, but I did always aspire to do something in art.
4. Which of your projects is your favorite or most personal and why?
My Africa work. Africa is a place so close to my heart. It fascinates me how vibrant the place is, how alive. There is so much energy. It's just much more intense: the smells, colors...it's like your senses instantly open up. And I love black skin, I think it's gorgeous. Those people, their radiance, and their body language—it's always been very special to me. As a youngster, when away from Africa, it felt like the real world was over there instead of in the place I was physically at. Now I wouldn't want to live there full time, but I am happy to visit often. Amsterdam and Africa make for the perfect balance.
5. How would you describe your style?
Graphic, although that might be too formal. Surrealistic, intuitive, and with a tendency to create confusion. I am interested in strong shapes and colors. I have always been attracted to a sort of graphic style. In Africa I thought the very harsh sun was something I should take advantage of. For most photographers it's horror. But I felt like, No, this is how it really is. In my photography you see a lot of transformed bodies, or faces that you can't really see. I like to create confusion and to make people to think. I also think this medium of photography doesn't really do justice to the subject that is presented. I mean, a photographed portrait doesn't say more than a portrait that's painted. In a photo you always see the vision of the photographer translated. It's not objective, it's tainted.
6. Who are your heroes?
Heroes, heroes. There are so many people I admire when it comes to photography or art, I wouldn't know where to start. I'd rather name 30 than 3. I guess I don't really believe in heroes in that sense.
7. What is your biggest fear?
Death. I have seen and experienced it so often, it feels like I moved through it. I guess it's also something you see in my work, or at least I hope so. You can approach it in a lot of ways, but I don't mean in a political or aesthetic way, more in a psychological sense. The transitory nature of it all, that time passes by, and there's no escape to it.
8. If you were to invite five people, either alive or dead, to a dinner party: who would they be?
My father, he passed away a while ago. But further, I don't really have 'heroes'. Of course there are people I'd like to meet, but not so specific. No, I would stick to my dad.
9. Biggest compliment to your art?
There was this one Jewish lady that thought my Africa pictures are so intriguing and that I represented African life in such a refreshing way. She felt it did justice to the country. I thought that was special, because she is from Africa. Not to mention: the talented writer Moses Isegawa liked my series so much that he offered to write for my upcoming book. That was quite the compliment.
10. Which picture you snapped recently took a lot of effort/got you in strange positions?
Well, working while I was 9 months pregnant, I was so nauseous. It doesn't really affect your creative process, the state of mind, but obviously it's more tricky.
11. What is your main drive, even if you're at a low point?
It happens to everyone who's in a creative process, to get stuck at some point. You don't always have that much energy or inspiration. When my dad died it felt like I was paralyzed, also artistically. But than I thought: I better create something that's bad than not create anything at all. It's about the action itself, to fully jump in again and establish something new.
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